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Copyright © 1987 The Christian Science Publishing Society
The Christian Science MonitorSeptember 28, 1987, Monday
SECTION: Business; BUSINESS MONDAY; Pg. 16
LENGTH: 1209 words
HEADLINE: Divers sink millions in sunken bounty
BYLINE: Barbara Bradley, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
DATELINE: Nantucket, Mass.
ON Jan. 23, 1909, the RMS Republic collided with another ship 55 miles south of here and sank. It dragged down with it a billion-dollar secret: whether or not there were 5 tons of gold coins aboard.
This summer, after 13 years of research, Martin Bayerle tried to find the answer. He and his 45-man team dredged up silver tea sets, crystal, bowler hats, and bottles of wine. But not the gold, which he estimates is worth between $400 million and $1.6 billion.
He, like other treasure-hunters (they prefer to be called salvagers) mining a dozen ships off the coast of the United States, are probably raising more controversy than artifacts.
Are they bringing buried history alive, or destroying it when they go for the gold? Are they a part of a legitimate business, or following a dream and taking millions of dollars from American investors in the process?
''Everyone likes the (idea) of getting rich quick without much work,'' says Paul Johnston, curator of maritime history at the Peabody Museum in Salem, Mass. ''You can do that through the lottery or you can do that through hunting for shipwrecks. It's basically just following a fantasy.''
Fantasy or not, treasure-hunting has become a popular pastime in the last five years. The slump in the offshore oil industry freed up divers and equipment for exploration. And advances in technology mean salvagers, even amateur divers, can find shipwrecks in weeks, whereas it used to take years, and explore them far more thoroughly.
''Until that technology was available, treasure hunting had a probably justified aura of a fraud, a scam,'' says Mr. Bayerle. But now, he claims, ''Treasure hunting is becoming a legitimate business, because it's the application of current technology to a specific goal.''
Bayerle's goal is a bounty that could be four times as great as anything found off the US coasts to date. Of course, even the advanced technology used by Bayerle's group, Sub-Ocean Salvors International, won't bring up a non-existent treasure. His conviction, and that of his investors who put down $2.5 million for the summer's salvage, hang on 13 years of research - evidence that one critic calls ''negative,'' and what he calls ''overwhelming.''
When the Republic sank in 1909, there were rumors that American Gold Eagle coins, at a face value of $3.5 million, were aboard. Most people theorized that the money, if aboard, was going to Italy, for one of two reasons: to help survivors of a devastating earthquake a month earlier; or to pay the crew of the North Atlantic Great White Battleship fleet, which was completing its trip around the globe. For decades, researchers pored over documents, trying to find proof.
''They researched those two theories and said, 'Well, there's no substantiation for gold on the Republic and therefore there is not gold on the Republic,''' says Bayerle. ''But I developed a third theory.''
After analyzing the New York gold market in 1909, and then from 1904 to 1914, Bayerle came to believe that a consortium of French banks had bought American Gold Eagle coins to prop up the Russian czar. The czar was heavily indebted to the French; therefore the French wanted to infuse more money into his government so it would not collapse and default on its loans, Bayerle figured.
The banks bought the gold on Jan. 12 from two New York City banks, and the Republic set sail 10 days later. Bayerle thinks the czar never received the money. Documents that could confirm or refute his theory have been kept under wraps by various governments, he says, or were lost in the Russian Revolution.
The only ship that sank during that time which could have carried the gold, he says, is the Republic. He says the evidence is ''circumstantial'' but ''overwhelming.''
Dr. Johnston at the Peabody Museum disagrees. ''To the best of my knowledge, there is absolutely no positive evidence that there is any treasure on board the Republic at all,'' he says. ''On the basis of missing documents, it was determined that there must have been treasure on board and that someone discovered and removed those documents from the public record as a result.''
Convinced that gold lurked somewhere in the Atlantic, Bayerle set out to look for the Republic. Using ''side-scan sonar'' technology, which bounces a sound wave over a large swath of ocean floor and translates the sound wave into a profile on a graph, Bayerle's team found the Republic in 1981 in 2 days.
For the next six years he tried to find a map of the ship which would tell him where the gold was stored, but to no avail. Without it, the search becomes fairly difficult.
''You could relate the size of the Republic to a 60-story office building,'' he says. ''We take that office building, we shake it violently, we throw it down on the ground, and we let it fall apart for 80 years. And then we put one man down there to rummage through it to find an area in terms of the displacement of the gold that would be the size of a large broom closet.''
When they called it quits for the year a couple of weeks ago, the broom closet still eluded the divers. Bayerle says that after searching 60 percent of the ship, the crew ''believes more so now after working the wreck for 70 days that the gold is there.''
Apparently not the entire crew. ''With the state of the ship, I think even if you knew exactly where (the gold) was, you might not find it,'' says Andy Belliveau, one of the 23 divers who spent a month looking for the gold. ''It could be covered with sand, it could be strewn all over the seabed from Boston to Nantucket for all we know.''
Bayerle says he will be back next year, and many of his investors with him. He says investors could recoup their $25,000 investments in the Sub-Ocean Salvors limited partnership if the group sold the equipment and got ''ancillary'' revenues, like money from the sale of thousands of bottles of wine, could be worth several million dollars.
Whether they find gold or not, the damage to history has already been done, maritime archaeologists say. They worry that others will be encouraged by the success of big-time treasure hunters like Mel Fisher, who found perhaps $400 million in treasure buried on the Atocha and Margarita off the coasts of Florida.
Such ''preservationists,'' once mainly archaeologists, but increasingly amateur divers and the public at large, view shipwrecks as time capsules. Salvagers see them as a resource of economic value. Salvagers say that value - and the history that the buried artifacts can unfold - would never be realized if they just let the ship lie undisturbed.
For years, legislators have been trying to pass bills to preserve shipwrecks close to shore from unfettered salvaging. Helen Hooper, spokeswoman for the Society for Historical Archaeological, thinks they may have a chance next year.
The new tax law, which makes limited partnerships less attractive, may be more effective in cutting salvagers' appetite for underwater bounty. And states, including Florida, are beginning to investigate salvage operations for fraud, which might protect hopeful investors from themselves.
But then again, maybe not. Notes one investigator, ''There are always people willing to invest in a dream or a fantasy.''
GRAPHIC: Picture 1, RMS Republic: was she carrying gold coins for the czar?, Treasure ships where the major Atlantic treasure wrecks lie.; Map, JOAN FORBES - STAFF